City lawmakers elected Berlin's first openly gay mayor Saturday, bolstering the city's credentials as one of the world's gay capitals, in a political shift that also could open the way for the former East German Communists to enter the government.
Klaus Wowereit, a Social Democrat, takes over on an interim basis after the coalition that ruled the city for a decade collapsed amid a bank scandal and mounting debts.
The shift removed the conservative Christian Democrats, led by outgoing Mayor Eberhard Diepgen, who had been the senior partners with the center-left Social Democrats in the coalition formed soon after reunification.
At least until new elections this fall, Berlin will be run by a coalition of the Social Democrats and the Greens party--mirroring the national government led by Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder.
Schroeder welcomed Wowereit's win Saturday, saying it opened "new prospects" for the capital.
But until the new elections, the city's coalition will lack a majority and need backing from the Party of Democratic Socialism--the successors to the Communists in former East Germany.
And Wowereit has not ruled out bringing the neo-Communists into his government--a prospect that angered conservatives, who say the Communists have not distanced themselves enough from the brutal East German regime.
"It's a bad day for the capital and sends a wrong signal for Germany's political culture," Christian Democratic Secretary-General Laurenz Meyer said. "For power, the Social Democratic Party is today selling its ideals and roots."
Wowereit, 47, was a little-known political figure before grabbing nationwide attention last week when he came out at a party convention before his nomination.
"I am gay, and that's a good thing," he said, later admitting that he made the statement because of rumors that tabloids were planning a story on his homosexuality.
Since then, he has emphasized in interviews that he's a "politician who's gay, but not a gay politician"--and that he hasn't focused on gay issues.
Nevertheless, Wowereit's election was greeted with applause and some cheers when it was announced Saturday at a street festival in Berlin's Schoeneberg district, the heart of the city's thriving gay and lesbian scene.
"The symbolism is important--in Germany and in the capital, also in eastern Germany," said Bodo Mende, a board member of the national Lesbian and Gay Assn. "Thank God that this is possible in Germany."